Jessica Kara writes optimistic contemporary YA, as well as fantasy, under the name Jess E. Owen. Her two contemporary novels, A Furry Faux Paw and Don’t Ask If I’m Okay, are available from Page Street. Here, Kara makes the case for bringing back affordable and accessible YA paperbacks, in an effort to drive sales and reach more teen readers.
Young adult fiction sales are in decline, and it’s a hot topic in publishing, where the internet is awash with questions of why. Are YA books really “New Adult” books in disguise? Are we still writing for teens, or for adults who read and review teen books—those who grew up in the second Golden Age of YA and now seek a similar experience as adult readers? And have we forgotten the 13–16-year-olds?
Keep in mind the natural ebbs and flows of publishing, the economy, and the recent years of upheaval that have driven us all a bit chaotic in our entertainment habits. Also, perhaps the “baby bust” of the mid-aughts means there are actually fewer teens around to buy and read books. All these things are certainly at play.
As a YA author, I’m keenly interested in this decline, the reasons, and possible solutions. I recently tweeted (sorry, posted? X’d? Anyway...) a theory that struck a chord: in our mission to make books beautiful and important, pay authors well, and appeal to adult buyers, we have forgotten the teen aesthetic and budget.
What I mean is: what ever happened to the paperback book? That luscious, bendy, cheap, satisfying companion you could stuff in a backpack, fold over on the train, take to the beach or the park without fear of “ruining” it. The $7 price tag that meant just about anybody could buy one. When seeking a serotonin boost where my options might be an $8 vanilla oat milk latte, a $6 phone game, or a $20 hardcover book, even as an adult my choice is clear.
Maybe it’s time for teen books to be an impulse purchase again.
Book bloggers, adult reviewers, and social media influencers have warped how we market, review, and perhaps even make books. This is a natural evolution—we want to sell books. Maybe publishers were so afraid that the e-book would replace our beloved physical tomes that they’re overcorrecting and trying to make every book precious, beautifully made, heavy, important; an artifact of bygone days.
Except the days aren’t bygone. “Kids these days” are very into aesthetic and retro life. Aside from generational cycles and fascinations, what is life in the roaring ’20s missing that they’re seeking in the styles and trappings of millennial and Gen X childhoods? And how can book publishers capitalize on these cravings?
Understand that when you’re competing for the attention of a teen reader, you aren’t competing against games, movies, and social media. A teen reader is reading, just reading differently. Often, they are reading fan fiction—on their phone. They are part of a secret club, finding comfort in characters they already know and scenarios that are reassuring (and yes, maybe titillating, but these are teens we’re talking about). However, there’s something else extremely important to remember about fan fiction: it’s free.
Maybe part of the decline in YA sales is because books for the average teen are not affordable to the average teen.
In an effort to make books artful and compelling and create good contracts for writers, maybe the products (shudder) are out of reach of their target audience. They are collectibles, gifts—items to be arranged aesthetically on a shelf and shared on Instagram—not cracked open again and again, thrown in a bag, or handed off to a friend.
An agent chimed in on my tweet, pointing out that hardcover-first contracts were favorable for authors and of course, publishers’ pockets. Of course, I want writers to be paid fairly so they can afford to tell the stories of their hearts, stories we need in the world. But my wild hypothesis is that lower-priced, attractive paperbacks, with the possibility for more sales, exposure, and passionate teen readers (kids and teens are the best readers) are part of the solution. Maybe it’s time we flip the script and write contracts that are more favorable to authors with paperback launches.
Other authors responding to my tweet noted that their paperback-first launches in other countries far outsold their hardcover launches in the United States, and rocketed their books to bestseller status. No doubt marketing and other factors play a part, but we can’t deny the power of a 15-year-old with the option to buy their own books—and talk about them with friends.
Even (or especially) from a marketing standpoint, it is imperative that stories written about teens, for teens, are accessible in every way to teens. In his book Word of Mouth Marketing, Andy Sernovitz discusses the power of proximity—actual, physical closeness—when it comes to spreading an idea or trend. How can we get teens with books in their hands in proximity to each other if the books never get in their hands?
While cost is important, I also think there’s something special about the paperback book that we have lost in the shuffle for the acknowledgment, value, and money that comes with hardcovers. It’s challenging to quantify that variable, but my earnest belief in the end is that we’ve skewed the reading experience and we are missing… something. Something deeply important and visceral that has nothing to do with numbers. So many people responded to my tweet with their love for cheap paperbacks.
In her book Writing Down the Bones, Natalie Goldberg cautions writers against buying expensive journals for their daily practice because they might feel pressure to write big important thoughts, and therefore, end up never writing anything at all. Maybe it’s the same for reading. Maybe these gorgeous, important-looking books are intimidating, and missing something vital about the simple experience of burrowing into a story—not only cost-wise, but kinetically and psychologically.
Perhaps by making books simply too much we are scaring off the casual reader, the reluctant reader, the reader with only $10 to blow on an impulse item, or the voracious reader who doesn’t have a Kindle and devours books like potato chips. In making books a luxury item, have we also turned off eco-conscious, consumerist-wary teens from experiencing a great story they might not necessarily want to keep, but could give away, or recycle, instead of feeling obligated to keep it on the shelf for years to come? I wonder if we are discarding the fun and cheap paperback as a unique and enjoyable way to experience books as a teen reader.
Now—especially now—with more diverse voices and fresh, relevant stories emerging for teens, we must make sure they can afford them, pack them up, and take them along wherever they go.